Can colonoscopies actually prevent death from colon cancer in women?

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FEATURE — Likely no woman enjoys the idea of having a colonoscopy, but they can be an absolute lifesaver.

Removing polyps during a colonoscopy can not only prevent colorectal cancer but also reduces the chances of death from the disease for years.

Screening tests like colonoscopies – in which a doctor examines inside the rectum and colon using a long, lighted tube called a colonoscope – can detect early-stage colorectal cancer before symptoms develop. Early detection is important because treatments are more likely to be successful for early-stage cancer rather than late-stage cancer.

Colonoscopy also allows doctors to remove any abnormal growths they find, including polyps. Polyps are growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum that are common in people over 50. Most polyps are benign, but some, called adenomas, can become cancer.

A previous study by researchers in the National Polyp Study found that removing adenomas reduces the risk of developing colorectal cancer. However, the followup at that time wasn’t long enough to show whether the reduced risk of cancer would translate into fewer deaths from colorectal cancer.

A followup study published on Feb. 23, 2012, in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that adenoma removal reduced the chance of death from colorectal cancer by 53%.

“Our findings provide strong reassurance that there is a long-term benefit to removing these polyps and support continued recommendations of screening for colorectal cancer in people over age 50,” one of the authors says.

These results show that adenomas identified and removed during colonoscopies include some that have the potential to progress to cancer and cause death.

Fecal occult blood tests, which you can buy over the counter, can be used with success rates up to 30% at preventing mortality from colon cancer, provided three at-home samples are done in a 14-day period.

Getting a single fecal occult blood test done at your yearly physical has not been shown to prevent mortality at all, so don’t put too much confidence in that.

The incidence of colon cancer is growing. It hits in prime retirement years — later 50s and 60s — and is tough to treat and tough to cure. This is one disease where an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Do some research. It’s your body. This is solid data and is safe and effective.

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